William Penn graduate Ronn Jenkins was a trailblazer in a difficult era
Ronn Jenkins wanted to learn how to swim in elementary school. A powerful force in his life, however, wanted no part of it.
"I was asthmatic, and I lived with my grandmother, who was very protective," he said.
His grandmother envisioned him going in the water during the winter months, coming home from the pool with wet hair and catching pneumonia.
Jenkins wouldn't let the idea die, though. So after he received his shots during a scheduled appointment with Dr. Harold Fisher, a physician in York, he posed a question.
All the boys in his elementary school during the 1950s would learn how to swim, and he didn't want to be the only one not to learn. Even though he had asthma, would it be OK if he learned how to swim?
What ensued was a short staring match between a physician and a grandmother. Then Fisher issued a declaration: "I think that would be fine."
"And I said to myself, 'Yes! I'm in,'" Jenkins said.
Laughing now, Jenkins added: "Little did I know Dr. Fisher was a former swimmer, and he had children on the York YMCA team but in a lower age group than me."
Swimming would become a permanent part of Jenkins' life. He became a diver who won two Junior Olympic national titles, a PSAC title and a Mid-Atlantic Conference championship. During an NCAA coaching career now approaching 50 years, he was appointed the coordinator of diving officials at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Still, this is not just another story of a former member of William Penn's swimming and diving team who went on to great accomplishments. Jenkins was different.
Jenkins believes he was the first African-American to join the York YMCA.
He was an African-American, competing and succeeding in a sport where he was not always welcomed.
"There were times when people would stare or comment, but I was going to still keep my head high and continue going," Jenkins said.
But in York he found a friend in a white teammate who also shared his interest in diving.
"At the Y there were some people who were, let's say, less enthusiastic about my presence," Jenkins said. "Mike Lau never was. ... Naturally Mike Lau was very, very, very influential in my staying with diving. He was the one I met in gymnastics (class at the Y). He was the one when I'd do something, he'd congratulate me. He was the one who I could sit beside who wouldn't elbow me away like others. ... Let's go forward 60 years, we're still friends."
Mike Lau, a 1962 William Penn graduate, competed as a diver for the William Penn swimming teams. Lau was in the fourth grade when he met Jenkins, who was in the fifth grade. Despite racial tensions that existed in the city and around the country at the time, the two became lifelong friends. This photo originally appeared in the William Penn yearbook, The Tattler. (Courtesy of York County Heritage Trust Library)
Lau recalled that the William Penn divers couldn't practice their full array of dives at the YMCA, because they would hit their hands on the low ceiling. Instead, they found out they could practice at the YWCA two nights a week during open swims. They had little input from their head coach, two-time diving state champion Donald Houseal, and "honestly Ronn and I coached ourselves," Lau said.
"I remember my mom telling me the story about how I kept talking about, "Ronnie this and Ronnie that", so when they came to the pool and met Ronn they were surprised to see he was black," Lau said. "I didn't think a thing of it, to me he was always just Ronn."
Not everyone thought like Lau. It was a different era. A changing, but difficult time in race relations. And the pool was no different than what was happening around the city or in cities across the United States.
A fight happened at the Y. Multiple white people jumped Jenkins one day.
"It was a sneak attack, and there were more than one," Jenkins said. "It was, 'We don't want any niggers in this Y,' it was that blatant back then."
Shaken, Jenkins could not bring himself to even tell his best friend on the team what had happened. Frightened and upset, he stayed away from the pool until the man who taught him how to swim, John deBarbadillo, phoned him.
"He told me, 'People are not always going to be kind to you, but it's not your fault. Don't let them get in the way of your dreams. I want you back.'"
So he returned to the pool.
He was there for a reason. He looked at the pictures deBarbadillo had hung on the wall of York's All-American swimmers, and he felt inspired.
"Perhaps subconsciously I looked at the ones who came before me (at William Penn), and they were successful," Jenkins said. "That was definitely an orchestration on my part, to get whatever magic they had to go on in life."
Ronn Jenkins, a 1961 William Penn graduate, would win a PSAC individual diving title while also capturing a Mid-Atlantic Conference diving championship during his college career at West Chester University. He was named the school's most outstanding athlete in 1964. Jenkins also captured two Junior Olympic national titles during is diving days in the early 1960s. But his biggest success has come in coaching, where he is considered one of the best diving coaches in the country. This photo originally appeared in the William Penn yearbook, The Tattler. (Courtesy of York County Heritage Trust Library)
It took him a year to learn how to swim. DeBarbadillo hand-picked Jenkins — never one of the strongest or most physically talented boys on the team — to be a diver. Jenkins felt he was part of something, even though he could have picked out dozens of reasons to quit.
"We had a meet in Virginia, the whole team went," he said. "I was probably 12 or 13 and an official stopped me, 'Colors aren't allowed at the pool,'" Jenkins remembers hearing.
Once again, a coach stepped in. This time, it was a man he primarily knew as an English teacher.
"Bill Schmidt went berserk," Jenkins said.
Bill Barber, another black swimmer in the York Y youth program during that time, recalled his impressions of York when his family moved to Lincoln Street near Farquhar Park.
"We didn't have many friends, and a few particular (white) neighbors didn't want us up there," said Barber, who graduated from Stanford University and played basketball against the UCLA powerhouse teams that included Lew Alcindor.
The struggle was not always clear for white teammates at the time.
"Nowadays I look back and think that must have been difficult," Lau said.
But Jenkins had a dream, and true to his coaches' urging, he didn't let anyone stand in his way.
Jenkins admitted continuing his education after graduating from West Chester University "was not part of the plan." Bucknell University called him to offer him a spot in its graduate program. Bucknell also asked him to work as the Bison's diving instructor. He returned to West Chester to coach and work for his alma mater, and he holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.
"Diving was such a springboard for me, and this was back in the days when there were no people of color diving," Jenkins said. "I wanted to prove people of color could do this. It allowed me to get into places I couldn't normally go."
Contact Jim Seip at 771-2025.